Institutional lights flicker dimly in the rainy night as Celia Chazelle approaches the Albert C. Wagner Youth Correctional Facility in Bordentown, where she offers prisoners a weekly class on social justice. At the entrance to the circa 1930 building, Chazelle, who carries only her raincoat, Xeroxed materials for her class, and her driver’s license, walks through a metal detector and is searched by a guard with a hand-held detector. That’s when she finds out that her class will likely be canceled this evening — the prison is in lockdown because of a “situation.”

The lockdown is not unusual, but the seriousness of the stabbing incident that provoked it is. But eventually Chazelle’s class is pulled together.

The walk to the classroom is a somber affair, as the small group passes from one gate and holding area to the next. Along the hall are cells where newly arrived prisoners are sitting or pacing as they wait for more permanent placement. Every window is covered with heavy bars, signifying over and over the separation of the prison community from the world outside.

When the group arrives at the classroom for the demo class, unexpectedly the room is painted an upbeat blue. But the windows that line the room on the hallway side tell the true story: instead of their apparent purpose of making the classroom light and airy, they reflect the nonstop need for authorities to be able to keep an eye on the activities within.

The class that Chazelle, who on the outside is the chair of the history department at the College of New Jersey and a scholar of medieval history, has been teaching at the prison is similar to her fall class at the college, “Social Justice, History and Practice.”

Chazelle got interested in prisons as a byproduct of academic work on the treatment of offenders in the early medieval period. People tend to think of that time in stereotypes, picturing capital punishment, cutting off arms and legs, or blinding and exiling people. Although she admits that this picture is not entirely farfetched, the truth lies elsewhere. “Yes, that went on,” she says, “but by and large they tried to maintain the integrity of the community and keep manpower there. The responses tended to be more along the lines of negotiation between opposing parties and peacemaking than based on abstract notions of what justice was.”

In the last two years Chazelle has looked at the relationship between medieval and modern responses to what we would today call crime. In the non-noble, early medieval societies, the vast majority of the population lived in a rural, subsistence economy. Although records from that period are scarce, because few people could read or write, says Chazelle, “to the extent that we can piece together life in those situations, you find that when it comes to wrongdoing and offenses, the one goal behind any kind of social response was to maintain the integrity of the community.” When survival from one year to the next is very fragile, a community considers alternatives to punishment. “More important than coming up with a just solution to offenses,” she says, “they wanted to restrain violence, stop feuding, and punish offenders — but in a way that did not cut them off entirely from the community.”

But things are very different in the United States, says Chazelle. “There is a sense of disjunction between the kind of response that was prevalent in early medieval societies and this kind of total institution that the United States has developed in the modern prison system,” she says. “For a long time I have been dismayed at the response to crime in this country and the role that incarceration plays in dealing with criminal offenses.”

Statistically, she says, in the United States a higher percentage of the population is locked up than in any other country in the world. And of course racism and class plays a role. According to the website of the New Jersey Department of Corrections, of the 23,000 prisoners as of January 2006, approximately 61 percent were African American, 20 percent Caucasians, 18 percent Hispanic, and one percent from other racial and ethnic backgrounds.

Although Chazelle’s research was initially more from the perspective of a scholar than a political activist, she soon started to think that if she was going to talk and write about prisons, she should really see one from the inside. But she quickly realized that visiting a prison was “a lot harder than you think.” Further complicating matters was that Chazelle did not want to visit “as a tourist.”

“I didn’t want to just go for a one-time visit,” she says. “I wanted to have an experience, whether through the prison ministry or teaching in a prison.”

Her first step toward the Albert C. Wagner facility came in the fall of 2007, when Chazelle attended a conference sponsored by ABC Literacy, which sponsors literacy programs in prisons and other venues. After listening to people talking about the frustrations of trying to develop programs to teach in prisons, she gathered E-mail addresses. But when she tried to follow up, she turned up only dead ends or wait-and-sees.

In early spring, 2008, she went to a reading at Labyrinth Books of a book about prisoners’ re-entry into society, sponsored by ABC Literacy. There she met a Princeton University graduate student whose research touched on aspects of the modern prison system and who volunteered in the Petey Greene program, which sends Princeton University students into prisons to tutor inmates.

James Farrin, who manages this program and shuttles student volunteers to Albert C. Wagner, set up a meeting between Chazelle and Alfred Kandell, the prison’s administrator and a graduate of Princeton High School and the College of New Jersey. Chazelle’s idea, given her already busy schedule, was to be an aide in an already functioning class. But Kandell noticed that she was a professor with loads of teaching experience, and he had another idea — he wanted her to teach her own class.

Chazelle demurred initially, but changed her mind after her first day as a teacher’s aide. “I was blown away by the experience,” she says, “being inside and seeing these young men who were so grateful to anyone who came in and did anything in terms of teaching in any way.” Moved by their appreciation and thinking how related it was to her own research, Chazelle realized “how anything I could do there was such a contribution.” So she wrote to Kandell and agreed to offer a version of the freshman seminar on social justice that she offers at the college.

Chazelle remembers very clearly one of her first visits inside the prison. “Among the things that struck me,” she recalls, “was the number of locked gates you have to go through to get inside. And every time you go through one, you are in a holding pen — a barred gate clinks behind you, and you have to wait for 15 seconds until the next one opens.”

What she describes could be likened to the Dante’s descent through the nine circles of hell in “The Divine Comedy.” Chazelle says, “I had the sense of going deeper and deeper into this prison; further and further from the outside, into this world so different from the outside world.”

The boundary of the outside world and the prison begins for the visitor with the jolt of moving from a largely lower-middle-class, white neighborhood into a facility where the majority of the population is African American. “You drive down a long alleyway,” she says, “and in late spring and early summer, you see recreation grounds and just about every face you see is black.”

The location of Albert C. Wagner in a community whose composition is so different from the prison population it houses is not unusual, Chazelle explains. Most American prisons tend to be situated in semirural, middle-class or lower-middle-class areas. “Prisons are often an economic benefit for those communities; they bring in jobs and buy land.”

The next reminder that outside and inside do not mix is the prohibition against bringing in electronic devices, the Blackberrys, cellphones, and PDAs that support communication in the world outside. In fact, says Chazelle, “you can’t bring anything in except your car keys.”

But the defining feature of this cut-off world is the daily life of these 18 to 32-year-old prisoners. They wear nondescript tan uniforms, with long-sleeved white undershirts underneath in cooler weather. Their movements are, of course, restricted. “Every time they go from one area to another, they are spread-eagled on the wall and frisked by the officers,” says Chazelle, who also emphasizes that the officers are matter of fact, not aggressive.

On the day of the canceled class, the population of 1,232 prisoners included 849 medium and maximum-security prisoners in the main facility; 233 in the ad-seg, or administrative segregation, unit; and 150 in what is called “full minimum.”

Chazelle describes two types of sleeping arrangements: dormitories, with bunk beds; and individual cells. Some prisoners were lying on their bunk beds doing absolutely nothing; others were in small lounges, with a television high up on the wall, either playing chess or doing nothing.

Other prisoners are kept in individual cells, in 22-hour-a-day lockdown, including some of her students. “They cannot leave their cells unless have they have a specific reason: a job, or a class, or mess,” says Chazelle.

One of her students thanked her at the beginning of her class, saying they liked the classes, since there was so little to do, and the classes helped fill the time.

Volunteers must follow a strict set of rules, and Chazelle is careful to follow all instructions to a T, because if she does not, she would be jeopardizing not only her own participation, but the entire program. One of the rules is that volunteers ask no questions, and the result is that she knows little about her students beyond hints that come up during class discussions. That works well for her, because she is intent on making the class experience as ordinary as possible. “I don’t want to know what they’re in for, because it might change the way I think about them,” she says.

She was also told not to accept gifts and to divulge no information about herself. In her blog she adds, “I must always be conscious that they’re different from people on the outside. Don’t trust them, keep a professional distance, they will test me and try to manipulate me and I must be constantly on guard.” She also was instructed to make sure that she is always between her students and the door.

Chazelle was terrified the first time she went into the prison to teach. She had no cell phone, and the prison guard was down the hall. Furthermore, she noticed that she did not have the whistle on her nametag that other visitors seemed to have. Her fear peaked when the person who runs the school area showed her the red emergency phone and told her: “The red phone is only for serious crises, for example, if you see a knife coming down.”

It took a while until she got to know her students, but once she did, she calmed down. On going in, she says, “I had the idea of an anonymous mass of humanity there, but one thing that has happened over the weeks is that they are individuals now. They have names. I recognize their faces; and I know something about their personalities. And that also breaks down fear.”

Although her prison class uses material similar to what she uses in her college seminar, “it’s an extraordinarily different experience teaching them and teaching my college students,” she says, “which is one thing that makes it so fascinating.”

At the college her class is mostly upper middle class and female, whereas at the prison her students are male, and often dreadlocked, tattooed, and bearded. The majority of her students are African American, along with two white Latinos, and one white from a European background.

Another difference from her college students is that conversation at the prison stays on serious topics. She writes in her blog: “I’ve noticed how deeply they seem to think and the serious subjects they want to discuss, even though they have a very hard time constructing their thoughts and articulating clear arguments. They are much more serious, in their informal conversations, than my students in the college or groups of my friends — so I don’t always care particularly if we get immediately to the theme I’ve chosen or not.”

One thing that has surprised Chazelle is the range of the young prisoners’ education. “I was amazed to find that some had post-undergraduate education, and one student I had for a while had a master’s degree; at the same time I have students — I don’t know if technically they finished high school, but their reading ability is quite limited.”

Class size can vary from 5 to 6 up to 17 or 18. “You never know from one week to the next who will be able to show up,” she says. “They may be in lockdown, or the officer on the cell block may not let them out, or they may have been released from prison and not taken off the class list.”

In class Chazelle and her students talk about a range of issues involving social ethics, and she is often very surprised by her students’ observations. In the first class she taught on her own, she presented a variation of the classic “train switch” ethical dilemma, where a person is standing on a highway overpass with a very fat man beside him and sees a runaway trolley car below. If he pushes the fat man onto the track, his size will be sufficient to stop the trolley, and five people’s lives will be saved.

When Chazelle asked her students what they would do in the situation, one answered, “You should get the hell out of there because you know the police will come and blame you for whatever happened.”

Another day she asked her students to consider whether it was fair that, when the Titanic was going down, women and children were put into the lifeboats first. Chazelle played devil’s advocate and said to her students: “You could make the argument that it made more sense to put in men, or at least some men, because where would the women and children be without men in a male-dominated society? The children would get to the shore and become orphans.”

Most of her students disagreed vehemently with this argument. “They were adamant that you have to protect women and children,” she says. Chazelle hypothesizes that this response may have come from their sense that male honor was at stake or, more probably, from their very conservative religious beliefs.

Another discussion opened on the subject of child beauty pageant contestant Jon Benet Ramsey’s murder in Colorado. Chazelle argued that the voyeurism of the American media is a consequence of Americans who prefer racy material to serious news. This led into a discussion of pornography, which prompted a student to observe that “the painting of a nude by Matisse is not pornography.” A statement that countered any preconceived notions Chazelle may have had about the interests of prisoners.

In another class meeting, Chazelle had the students read the “International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights,” eventually signed by 138 countries, and then asked them to make lists of what they thought were their own human rights — as she defined them, “rights that belong to you by virtue of your humanity.” She was very surprised when the right to bear arms appeared at the top of several students’ lists. Their reasoning? “You need to have guns in order to protect your friends and family.” With only one exception, all were adamant that there should be no controls on the ownership of guns.

Her students’ views on abortion also surprised her. With the exception of only one student, she says, “they were adamantly opposed to abortion from the moment of conception.” Although she tried to present counterarguments — for example, that since 20 percent of zygotes don’t implant, there is a natural kind of abortion that goes on in women at the moment of conception, and that certain contraceptives prevent implantation. But her students could not be swerved from the position that abortions are wrong because killing is wrong.

This, of course, left Chazelle trying to square this with things they have suggested about environments they come from — where violence is widespread, people are shot to death, and gangs have a powerful presence. Chazelle knows that most of her students grew up in fatherless families and some, although young, have multiple children.

Talking about prisoners’ families reminds Chazelle about how distant prisoners are from the society outside. In a number of cases her students’ families have moved away, and they have no idea where they went. Wives and girlfriends don’t come to visit, and friends drop away. “Either they don’t want to keep up with you, or because of the bureaucracy they lose touch,” she says. Families who do come often have to wait a long time, in a room with no chairs, and nothing for the children to do — in a room where she herself recently had waited 45 minutes to attend the prison’s graduation ceremony.

In addition to monthly visits in the visiting room, the prisoners are allowed 15-minute weekly visits behind a bullet-proof glass screen, with conversations by phone. She relates in her blog: “One prisoner said he asked people not to come too often, that he tried to space out the visits since they were emotionally so draining. Others agreed. It was better to get used to being separated rather than to have constant reminders of life on the outside. They exchange mail, of course, and I guess phone calls, but it’s the seeing of loved ones that hurts — the loneliness once they leave.”

Chazelle’s observations at the prison have confirmed what she already knew from her own scholarship. “The problem in the U.S. is not just that so many people go to prison and that they are so racially biased and biased against the poor,” she says, “but our prisons are much more cut off from the outside society than prisons in other parts of the world, particularly in continental Europe.”

James Whitman, professor of comparative and foreign law at Yale Law School, in his 2005 book, “Harsh Justice: Criminal Punishment and the Widening Divide between America and Europe,” compares the incarceration systems in continental Europe, particularly in France and Germany, with the United States. Chazelle summarizes Whitman’s observations: “It is remarkable how different the attitude is to people inside prisons. Here there is more emphasis on really dividing them from the outside society, whereas many prisoners in continental Europe don’t wear uniforms and have more visitation rights.”

In Europe prisoners are also paid a salary for their prison work that is more comparable to outside wages, and in certain situations, prisoners have paid vacations. “There is more effort to make life in prison replicable of the outside at the same time they are confined. One of the underlying concerns is rehabilitation,” explains Chazelle. “They want them to come out of prison ready to function as an upstanding citizen in outside society.”

Finally, says Chazelle, European society’s overall response to crime is less harsh than it is in the United States. In Europe sentences are more likely to be probation or community service.

Chazelle’s activism is no accident. Her upbringing, she says, was in a “quite left wing, politically concerned household.” In 1964 when she was 10 and living in a conservative part of Ohio, her father wrote a letter to the editor of the Cleveland newspaper that would have serious consequences for her family. The letter criticized Goldwater’s position on expanding the American presence in Vietnam to achieve a total victory over Communism, describing it as a danger to the country and the world. After the letter was picked up by several other newspapers, including one in Chicago, her parents received quite a bit of hate mail.

This experience spurred a move to Calgary, in Alberta, Canada, where her mother was born and still had family. Her father, an English professor, found a position at the University of Calgary. Chazelle’s mother went back to college when her daughter was in grade school, then got a master’s degree in art history, published, and worked with museums and art dealers in Calgary.

Concerned about the quality of education in Calgary, Chazelle’s parents sent her back to the Boston area, where her mother had grown up, for the rest of high school. When Chazelle started Milton Academy in 1969 at the beginning of 10th grade, she was already politically aware and deeply affected by the assassination of Robert Kennedy, whom she greatly admired. She quickly got involved in protests against the Vietnam War, and while at Milton she also did some grassroots political work for Robert Drinan in his Congressional campaign. During this period she was drawn intellectually to United States history and at one point considered a career in the United States government.

During a gap year between high school and college, Chazelle’s historical interests widened to embrace another continent and a different time frame. During a visit to Ireland, she discovered the early Middle Ages in the form of a small early medieval monastery on a rocky island, called Skellig Michael, just off the coast of Kerry. She writes in an E-mail: “I was enthralled, and it was one reason I decided to take courses in medieval Latin and medieval history when I entered the University of Toronto as a freshman that fall. I wanted to understand the intellectual and spiritual forces behind the monks’ choice to live on that remote outpost.”

Having chosen to attend a Canadian university because it made sense financially, Chazelle realized that majoring there in United States history might not look so impressive to a future graduate school or law school in the United States, so she split the difference, taking courses in both United States and medieval history.

“Since then, I have had a split personality,” Chazelle says, “one half interested in medieval history, especially medieval Christianity and theology, and the other half in politics and the United States government.” Her medieval side also reflects another piece of her upbringing — her mother was raised in very Roman Catholic household, and she herself once contemplated the ministry. In the end she went to Yale University in medieval studies, attracted by an interdisciplinary program that combined religion, history, and art history.

At Yale she met her husband, Bernard Chazelle — now a professor of computer science and applied mathematics at Princeton University and also a political activist and blogger, including a regular column for “A Tiny Revolution.” The Chazelle family moved to Princeton first in 1986, then for good a few years later.

As Chazelle settled into the life of an academic and mother — publishing, finding an academic job, and raising a son and daughter — her social activist side stayed on the back burner. “I was always keeping politically aware, but in a passive sense,” she says.

The events of September 11, 2001, and the Bush administration’s response, however, pushed her political concerns to the forefront. She writes in an E-mail, “With the invasion of Iraq I reached the point where I felt it was almost irresponsible to continue doing straightforward scholarship on early medieval history and not engage with the modern problems.”

She decided to contact other medievalists and start exploring with them ways in which historians of the premodern periods can use their knowledge of the past to inform understanding of the present. “Medieval historians are often aware of ways in which concepts that ultimately have their origins in the medieval centuries recur in modern rhetoric about foreign policy and domestic affairs,” she says.

One example she gives is the Bush administration’s use of Crusader rhetoric; another is the Pope’s statement that Europe is a Christian region. Chazelle observes that although the concept of a Christian Europe may have had meaning in the late Middle Ages, the early Middle Ages were characterized by a multiplicity of different forms of Christianity, Islam, paganism, and Judaism. As a result, she says, “to call Europe a Christian area and draw conclusions for the present is very problematic to medievalists.”

In contrast to modernists, who tend not talk about a past earlier than the 18th century, she and her fellow medievalists see many continuities between the present and the premodern past: “The feeling of medievalists is that if those continuities were understood, it would enrich our understanding of how we got the way we are, and provide a richer understanding of the present and a more solid foundation for making plans for the future.”

Chazelle’s discussions with her fellow medievalists got her thinking more specifically about the role of prisons and the differing ways that societies responded to offenders in the Middle Ages and today. “I’ve always been interested in early medieval beliefs about social order — about what constitutes a moral ordering of society — and about the development of medieval concepts of justice and law,” she says. “So the focus on penal systems was partly a natural outgrowth.” She adds that she has long been appalled at the overwhelming emphasis in the United States on incarceration as a response to crime.

In addition to Chazelle’s pursuits of social justice through her academic work and her prison class, she is a hands-on volunteer in the social ministries of her church in South Camden, a poor community that several of her prison students call home. The Irish pastor of this mostly white church has been there for 40 years and has inspired a host of social justice initiatives.

Chazelle generally goes to the church two or three times a week. She works on Saturday mornings in the church’s thrift store and also helps prepare and serve dinners for local residents. Aspects of the Camden community she has come to know through her volunteer work remind Chazelle of the early medieval, non-noble, stateless societies she has studied. “They receive little from the state government that is of positive benefit,” she says. “There is trash littering the sidewalks, and 50 percent of the buildings are abandoned.”

The poverty is extreme. Yet, as in the medieval communities, the constant threats to survival have created extremely strong networks of family and friends: kinship networks, family by marriage, foster children. “They really take care of one another; they form teams and help out one another, particularly in times of distress,” says Chazelle.

One former Camden resident, Dave Harrity, is Chief of Custody at the prison where Chazelle teaches. Although he grew up in Camden, which he calls “the murder capital of the world,” his involvement with karate kept him on the straight and narrow. He got involved in prison work through an internship in a Philadelphia prison and has devoted his life to corrections. “I look at it as a calling,” he says.

Harrity comes to work with a positive attitude. “If you let the atmosphere oppress you, you’re not going to accomplish what you want in the lives of these people,” which, he says, is to help them realize they don’t have to spend their lives in prison. “Like Obama, you have to embody hope,” he says. “He confirms my belief in America — if you work hard, have a positive attitude, and surround yourself with the right people, you can get somewhere in life.”

Chazelle is less optimistic, at least when it comes to the country’s penal system. “The underlying concern is rehabilitation, but the reality of prisons is that is not what they do,” she says, citing recidivism rates of 65 percent within three years.

This bleak picture has nothing to do with the goodwill of the people who work in the prisons, Chazelle emphasizes. “I have tremendous respect for all the officials I have come into contact with. They are incredibly well meaning. But their hands are constrained: there are not enough funds for education.”

These same officials helped Chazelle realize that maybe she is more courageous than she thought. “I was very scared to begin with, but I managed to swallow my fear and go in,” she says, attributing her perseverance in part to the sense of professionalism among the prison officers and the support that Kandell provides.

Perhaps the inner circle of the hell of prison life is the control exerted on the prisoners’ every movement. “Their lives are governed by rules,” says Chazelle. “Every time they move from their cells, the times they eat and get up, whether they can go to school, are all governed by rules and by the decisions of the officers whose job it is to implement those rules.”

At the other end of the spectrum, in the world outside, the defining characteristic is freedom. Contrasting the experience of freedom with the regimentation of prison life, one of Chazelle’s students observes, “To me freedom is the capacity to deliberate, to choose, or to respond willingly.”

Chazelle, who opposes this system of incarceration that locks up so many young black men, realizes she cannot bridge the chasm between outside and inside, but she hopes in some small way to make a difference.

“I feel like just providing my students with a class environment is breaking down those barriers,” she says. “Giving them a chance to discuss interesting, important issues in an academic setting and having them write essays gives them that regular academic experience and makes them forget for a little bit of time that they are in a prison.”

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